Among the world’s largest boatbuilding countries, there is one that most Americans don’t realize is, well, huge: Poland.
Born after the 1980s fall of communism, Poland’s boating industry sprang from the efforts of people such as Frenchman Pierre Charlot, who quickly understood the potential of the country’s skilled maritime tradesman and relatively cheap labor costs. Then came other pioneers, such as the French manufacturer Jeanneau, one of the first builders to open a plant in Poland. Year after year, the sector has grown, with more and more factories. Production quality has risen while costs have dropped.
Today, with 22,000 boats leaving its factories each year, Poland is the largest-volume boatbuilder in Europe. Italy retains the lead for overall value of production. Polish factories manufacture boats for French, Scandinavian and American brands. Poland is now the world’s second-largest recreational-boat builder in units behind the United States, and the largest European exporter to the U.S. market.
Some 95 percent of Polish-built boats are exported, for a total of about $540 million, a figure that has almost doubled in five years, according to its marine trade association, Polboat. The top three export markets are Norway ($77 million), France ($61 million) and the United States ($57 million). The country’s leading builder is the French conglomerate Groupe Beneteau, which produces dozens of models in its Polish factories, but there’s also Axopar, Bayliner, Sea Ray, Windy, Quicksilver and many other brands associated with other countries.
Poland’s boatbuilding factories are mainly in three regions: Gdańsk to the west, Ostroda near the center of the country and Augustow to the north of the Lake District. More than 1,000 companies employ more than 40,000 people in the boatbuilding sector, according to Polboat.
Polish builders are also producing larger boats, rather than just subcontracting low-cost units for non-domestic brands. In the last decade, high-quality Polish brands have gained a global following. Among the leaders are Parker, which is distributed throughout Europe; Delphia, which Groupe Beneteau acquired last year for the brand and potential excess production capacity for its other brands; Sunreef Yachts, a top name in the luxury catamaran market; and Galeon, whose partnership with MarineMax in the United States has helped make it the largest Polish boat brand. Conrad is considered Poland’s custom yacht leader.
“Our customers are everywhere in the world,” says Karolina Paszkiewicz, marketing director at Sunreef. “We have owners from the U.S.A., from Europe, Asia and Australia.”
In 2006, the Polish Chamber of Marine Industry and Water Sports — or Polboat — was launched to organize Poland’s boating industry. The marine trade association now includes 70 percent of the country’s marine companies. “Our goal is to produce the best possible quality in the world markets,” says Polboat president Sebastian Nietupski.
Production will likely increase even more, Nietupski says, as demand from companies such as Groupe Beneteau, Brunswick Corp. and MarineMax, heats up. “Currently, we are in the process of expanding our business and finding solutions,” Nietupski says, adding that part of the “solutions” has included establishing specialized engineering and naval architecture programs at Polish universities.
Sunreef: Two-Hulled Success Story
The story of Sunreef Yachts is emblematic of the second generation of Polish builders. Unlike many other builders, Sunreef never built boats for other companies as a subcontractor. It was founded in 2002 by Frenchman Francis Lapp, who wanted to build customizable luxury catamarans.
Already working in Poland, Lapp saw the potential for a high-quality brand with a relatively lower price point. He chose the port of Gdańsk to establish the company, in the same shipyard that Lech Walesa made famous two decades earlier during the Solidarity years. Lapp’s first model was a 74-foot catamaran with a flybridge, and a few years later came the 70 Sunreef Power, marketed as the first power cat capable of crossing the Atlantic.
Now, almost 20 years after the launch of its first boat, Sunreef reports having sold more than 130 catamarans from 40 to 110 feet. About 60 percent of Sunreef’s sales have sails. And to offer customization, the shipyard manufactures everything in-house, from the hulls to upholstery and carpentry.
In 2012, Sunreef says, the yard produced just over 10 sailing and power yachts. In 2017, 17 units left the factory. That number rose to 24 boats in 2019.
To handle the increasing volume, Sunreef is developing a new facility a few miles from its original one. It measures 538,000 square feet and has three CNC machines, one of which can make pieces 60 feet long. That yard will also produce larger models, which could be significantly larger than ts flagship 80 Sunreef Power, which the company displayed at the Cannes Yachting Festival last fall.
Galeon: The Polish Miracle
After Lech Walesa, perhaps the most famous Polish brand is Galeon. In the last five years, Galeon has become a well-known name in the U.S. motoryacht market.
Established in 1982 by a former naval captain, Galeon remains a privately held, family-owned company. The company started with smaller boats but now has about 15 models from 42 to 64 feet in hardtop and flybridge versions. There’s also Galia, a sister brand of smaller boats, with about 15 models.
“The first thing is undeniably the quality of manufacturing,” Grzegorz Tuszynski, Galeon’s general manager, says about the brand’s success. “We use modern techniques like infusion, except for some very complicated parts. We also use a lot of carbon for the superstructures. Then we try to innovate as much as possible, especially by working with Tony Castro, who designed most of our range. We were among the first to offer fold-out balconies that offer a new way of life on board, but also swivel sofas and a very different layout inside our boats.”
Galeon has 1,400 employees and was expected to generate $102 million in sales last year — an increase of about 20 percent compared to 2018. Much of that growth, the builder says, comes from sales in the 40- to 70-foot segment.
While Galeon is increasing its presence in countries such as Australia, the United States remains by far its largest market, accounting for about 50 percent of sales, thanks to the MarineMax partnership.
“We have been in the U.S. market for less than four years, and we are already the second-largest boat seller in the country in the 40- to 70-foot class,” Tuszynski says. “We plan to become number one by 2021.”
Europe accounts for around 45 percent of Galeon’s sales, while the remaining 5 percent is distributed between Asia, Australia and South America. “Our goal now is to conquer Asia and the Indian Ocean area,” Tuszynski says.
The number of units produced by Galeon continues to rise. According to Tuszynski, in 2016, the company built 80 boats. That number climbed to 120 in 2017, then rose to 150 in 2018. “In two years, we’ve almost doubled production,” he says.
To support this growth, in particular the sales volume that MarineMax is achieving, Galeon has invested $11 million during the past two years to increase its production area, which is now about 538,000 square feet. It also opened a second factory with direct access to the Baltic Sea for testing.
The 500 Fly is Galeon’s best-selling model, but bigger boats are coming. “We are working on a model over 80 feet,” Tuszynski says.
Growing Size and Sophistication
MarineMax officials, who used the Galeon brand to replace lost sales of Sea Ray yacht models when Brunswick dropped that line, were at first worried about the Polish builder being able to meet demand and keep quality high.
One MarineMax official says Galeon not only kept up with heightened production demands, but also modernized its facility at the same time. “I have to admit we were nervous,” the official told Soundings Trade Only, asking not to be named. “It’s amazing what they’ve been able to accomplish in such a short time.”
Poland’s growth in boatbuilding has been one of the European marine industry’s greatest success stories over the last three decades. With Groupe Beneteau increasingly relying on its factories in Poland to build smaller, lower-cost units, and brands such as Axopar and Galeon feeding export channels, the country of Lech Walesa should see its boatbuilding industry continue to become larger and more sophisticated in the next 10 years.
This article originally appeared in the February 2020 issue.